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Authors' finest hour

As you read this, another book about Winston Churchill is being published, and there is so much more to be said.

July 27, 2003|William Wallace | Special to The Times

London — Winston Churchill and words go together like Churchill and World War II. Each did wonders for the other. Language was Churchill's arrow, and his oratory and pen generated millions of words in speeches, books and articles that remain a joy to read 40 years after his death.

Apparently that wasn't enough. Writing about Churchill remains a vibrant cottage industry in both Britain and the United States, where no matter how many books are published on the man and his extraordinary life there always seems to be another author popping up, waving a book contract and claiming just one more thing to say.

"Well, it certainly feels like an industry to me," says Celia Sandys, Churchill's granddaughter, sitting in a London apartment just down the road from the epicenter of the great man's career at Westminster. "After all," she laughs, "I had three Churchill books of my own out in six weeks this spring."

Sandys' contributions to the canon are "Chasing Churchill," an anecdotal memoir of teenage travels with her grandfather in his declining years; "We Shall Not Fail, the Inspiring Leadership of Winston Churchill," written with Jonathan Littman; and the snappier "Churchill," a condensed biography heavy on pictures and published to accompany a forthcoming British television documentary.

But her works will have to claw for space on the shelves of collectors. The last two years have seen Churchill books cascade out of publishing houses on both sides of the Atlantic, with no sign of anyone turning off the tap. There are studies on Churchill and leadership. On Churchill and appeasement. On his wit, his wife, and his love affair with America. There are short biographies and thick ones that run to more than a thousand pages.

All of which raises the question: How much can the market bear, even for the man who so stubbornly defended civilization at its darkest hour and saw off the Nazis?

"Oh, I think he'll keep selling without any difficulty," says Andrew Roberts, the British historian and author of this year's "Hitler and Churchill: Secrets of Leadership" (Weidenfeld). "Churchill fanatics tend to be well off, they're proud of their Churchilliana, and like those who are fans of Lawrence of Arabia or Marilyn Monroe, they'll buy every single book. I've been in homes where they're piled up, floor to ceiling," he says. "Just books on Churchill."

But this is more than a British cult of leadership. Roberts' book, for example, is slated to be translated into six languages. Including Korean. Nor is it related to another book publishing artifice: the anniversary of a birth, death or career highlight.

The source of the fascination, some of the authors say, lies in part with Sept. 11 and the sense of doom it cast. The search for solace in how previous generations coped with peril is what revived curiosity about Churchill, they argue (though many of the current books were in the works before the terrorists struck). It certainly sent politicians from George W. Bush to Rudy Giuliani scurrying for their Churchill quotation anthologies. Sept. 11 also revived the old Anglo-American axis, that lopsided "partnership" that is still viewed in the more chauvinistic quarters of Britain as "the special relationship," in which Britain stood tall alongside the U.S. in the fight for freedom.

"Every prime minister since then has hankered after re-creating that Churchill-Roosevelt partnership, which was a great show even if it was in reality a bumpy relationship at times," says David Cannadine, director of the Institute of Historical Research at London University and author of the newly published "In Churchill's Shadow" (Penguin).

Cannadine's collection of essays is a social study on how modern Britain remains stunted by the weight of its past greatness and its icons -- none more so than Churchill. ("I know David's book is about a wider subject than Churchill, but it is significant he managed to get the name into the title," says Geoffrey Best, another academic whose "Churchill: A Study in Greatness" was well received when it was published in 2001.)

Margaret Thatcher in particular had a strong sense of identification with the wartime Tory leader, notes Cannadine, seeing Britain in similar need to be rescued from decline and always musing aloud about "what Winston would have done."

Getting the first word in

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